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A Wretched Fate for 'Infiltrators': African Asylum Seekers Have Few Options in Israel

VICE News visited Israel's Holot detention center for asylum seekers, condemned by the country's own High Court as inhumane. The country refuses almost all asylum requests from Africans.
May 14, 2015, 6:30pm
Imagen por Tsafrir Abayov/AP

Aman Beyene stares out across the horizon. "People walk out of here only when there is no hope left in their heart, only when their spirits are so broken they don't care anymore if they live or die," he tells VICE News.

Seven years ago Beyene fled Eritrea — one of the world's most secretive and dictatorial regimes — where he was detained, beaten, and tortured in an underground prison by government forces. When he arrived in Israel, he believed it was finally a happy end to a long and perilous journey. "I thought I had arrived in a democracy," he said with a wry smile.

For five years, at least, the dream came true. Beyene found jobs in bars, hotels, and restaurants, he made friends, and learned Hebrew. One day, he hoped, his wife and child would be able to join him.

But in the middle of last year, although he had committed no crime, Beyene was ordered to report to Holot, a remote detention facility deep in the sands of Israel's Negev desert.

Conditions inside the metal fenced desert detention facility are grim. In the summer temperatures reach 105 degrees Fahrenheit and in winter they plummet to below 25. Men sleep 10 to a room in bunk beds, meals are sparse. Detainees are allowed outside, but they can't go far. Three times a day they must check in for roll call and curfew is at 10pm. The closest town, Beersheba, is over 43 miles away, more than a six-hour walk.

Opened in December 2013, the center, which can house up to 3,000 asylum seekers at any given time, has been ruled illegal by Israel's own High Court and widely condemned by human rights watch groups.

Currently housing around 2,000 asylum seekers, Holot is the supposed answer to what the Israeli Prime Minister called a "threat to the social fabric of society." With no release date, no court hearings scheduled, and asylum claims that often go unanswered or are subject to years of bureaucratic delays, the inmates' detention is essentially indefinite.

Since it opened, Israel's top court has twice instructed that Holot should be closed. Most recently in September 2014 the state was ordered to shut the center within 90 days after a High Court judge ruled the facility was "wretched" and violated human rights in an "essential, deep and fundamental way."

Mutasim Ali, a 39-year-old refugee from Darfur in Sudan, has just celebrated his first anniversary inside Holot and one of the most vocal activists for asylum seekers' rights in Israel. While closing the detention center is a priority, he said, the problem runs much deeper.

"Before I was focused on political reform at home, now I have to fight here too," Ali told VICE News. "It's not just a problem of Holot, it's the system. The government in Israel has become increasingly radical, and open racism by politicians is acceptable."

There are estimated to be around 63,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, who entered before Israel erected a five-meter steel fence on its border with Egypt in 2012. Right-wing Israeli lawmakers have routinely, and publicly called asylum seekers "infiltrators."

US NGO Human Rights Watch said in February that authorities had steadily developed a range of coercive measures to "make their lives miserable" and "encourage the illegals to leave," in the words of former Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai and current Israeli Interior Minister Gilad Erdan.

Earlier this month the country's incoming Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked — who has described African immigrants as a threat to Israel's Jewish character — accused European countries of funding Israeli NGOs pushing for asylum seekers' rights, following a mass rally in central Tel Aviv at the beginning of May.

Since mid-August 2014 Israel has rejected an overwhelming 99.9 percent of Eritrean and Sudanese requests for asylum; a stark contrast to what happens in the rest of the world, where 83 and 67 percent of requests, respectively, are granted.

"This is a matter of skin color, it's because we are black," Ali told VICE News. "The government keeps power by creating fear and putting itself up as the solution, Ethiopians are targeted too… and it's not just us [Africans] that are being set up as the problem," he added, referencing Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.

Related: 'Treated Like Slaves': Israel Faces Criticism Over Violations of Migrant Worker Rights

For the men held in Holot there is only one way out; accepting a deportation order to return to their country of origin, or another third-party country, usually Rwanda or Uganda.

Since June 2014 more than 6,700 Sudanese and Eritrean people have left Israel. But whilst Israel insists their return program is "voluntary," human rights activists say there is overwhelming evidence the state puts asylum seekers under huge psychological duress.

"The pressure exerted is huge. Holot is a humiliation for people, a kind of mental punishment to make them break and leave," Hagar Shechter, spokesperson for ASSAF, an Israeli NGO working with asylum seekers and refugees, told VICE News. "They ran away from terrible things, harsh dictatorships and wars. People who suffered violence and saw their families die are being imprisoned for no reason. They tell us they feel they have no future, that they are no longer human."

Returning home means likely facing further abuses and even death for many Eritreans and Sudanese. In a report released last year Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, documented dozens of cases of returnees to Sudan -— where even visiting Israel is a crime punishable by a 10-year prison sentence — being detained, accused of spying, brutally tortured.

The fate of those returning to a third-party country is also bleak. While Israel has claimed to have an agreement in place with Uganda and Rwanda for receiving the asylum seekers, the governments of the two countries say no deal has yet been done, despite the fact that deportations have already begun from the Israeli side.

"We know from people that have gone what happens, they have paperwork from Israel but it only allows them to stay for three days," said Ail. "People are put on the plane by the Israelis but on arrival they have their documents taken, or have to pay a bribe to be let out of prison. They're left with nothing, no money, no papers… They become stateless."

Few of the deportees stay long in Rwanda or Uganda. For most it is just a springboard to start another long journey of dangerous roads, people smuggling and illegal border crossing. Many, however, never make their dream destination of a better life.

Earlier this year Beyene saw a video of his friend's final moments kneeling in an orange jumpsuit before being executed by Islamic State militants on a beach in Libya — a common transit country for Africans trying to reach Europe.

"Men here, they just become hopeless," said Beyene. "When they feel like there's nothing left to lose then they go; a man with nothing has nothing to lose."

Many other former Holot inmates are missing in action. "People leave and some we just can't contact anymore," Beyene told VICE News. "Maybe they are at the bottom of the Mediterranean, maybe they're being held by terrorists, maybe they're still travelling. I can't know. I can just pray they're on their way to a better life."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem